Liberty and Taxation

Excerpted from the book;

Individual Liberty
Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.


The power of taxation, being the most vital one to the State, naturally was a prominent subject in Liberty's discussions. Mr. F. W. Read, in London Jus, attacked the position of Anarchism on this point and was thus answered by Mr. Tucker:

The idea that the voluntary taxationist objects to the State precisely because it does not rest on contract, and wishes to substitute contract for it, is strictly correct, and I am glad to see (for the first time, if my memory serves me) an opponent grasp it. But Mr. Read obscures his statement by his previous remark that the proposal of voluntary taxation is "the outcome of an idea...that the State is, or ought to be, founded on contract." This would be true if the words which I have italicized should be omitted. It was the insertion of these words that furnished the writer a basis for his otherwise groundless analogy between the Anarchists and the followers of Rousseau. The latter hold that the State originated in a contract, and that the people of today, though they did not make it, are bound by it. The Anarchists, on the contrary, deny that any such contract was ever made; declare that, had one ever been made, it could not impose a shadow of obligation on those who had no hand in making it; and claim the right to contract for themselves as they please. The position that a man may make his own contracts, far from being analogous to that which makes him subject to contracts made by others, is its direct antithesis.

It is perfectly true that voluntary taxation would not necessarily "prevent the existence of five or six `States' in England," and that "members of all these `States' might be living in the same house." But I see no reason for Mr. Read's exclamation point after this remark. What of it? There are many more than five or six Churches in England, and it frequently happens that members of several of them live in the same house. There are many more than five or six insurance companies in England, and it is by no means uncommon for members of the same family to insure their lives and goods against accident or fire in different companies. Does any harm come of it? Why, then, should there not be a considerable number of defensive associations in England, in which people, even members of the same family, might insure their lives and goods against murderers or thieves? Though Mr. Read has grasped one idea of the voluntary taxationists, I fear that he sees another much less clearly, - namely, the idea that defence is a service, like any other service; that it is labor both useful and desired, and therefore an economic commodity subject to the law of supply and demand; that in a free market this commodity would be furnished at the cost of production; that, competition prevailing, patronage would go to those who furnished the best article at the lowest price; that the production and sale of this commodity are now monopolized by the State; that the State, like almost all monopolists, charges exorbitant prices; that, like almost all monopolists, it supplies a worthless, or nearly worthless, article; that, just as the monopolist of a food product often furnishes poison instead of nutriment, so the State takes advantage of its monopoly of defence to furnish invasion instead of protection; that, just as the patrons of the one pay to be poisoned, so the patrons of the other pay to be enslaved; and, finally, that the State exceeds all its fellow-monopolists in the extent of its villainy because it enjoys the unique privilege of compelling all people to buy its product whether they want it or not. If, then, five or six "States" were to hang out their shingles, the people, I fancy, would be able to buy the very best kind of security at a reasonable price. And what is more; the better their services, the less they would be needed; so that the multiplication of "States" involves the abolition of the State.

All these considerations, however, are disposed of, in Mr. Read's opinion, by his final assertion that "the State is a social organism." He considers this "the explanation of the whole matter." But for the life of me I can see in it nothing but another irrelevant remark. Again I ask: What of it? Suppose the State is an organism; what then? What is the inference? That the State is therefore permanent? But what is history but a record of the dissolution of organisms and the birth and growth of others to be dissolved in turn? Is the State exempt from this order? If so, why? What proves it? The State an organism? Yes; so is a tiger. But unless I meet him when I haven't my gun, his organism will speedily disorganize. The State is a tiger seeking to devour the people, and they must either kill or cripple it. Their own safety depends upon it. But Mr. Read says it can't be done. "By no possibility can the power of the State be restrained." This must be very disappointing to Mr. Donisthorpe and Jus, who are working to restrain it. If Mr. Read is right, their occupation is gone. Is he right? Unless he can demonstrate it, the voluntary taxationists and the Anarchists will continue their work, cheered by the belief that the compulsory and invasive State is doomed to die.

In answer to Mr. Read's statement (which, if, with all its implications, it were true, would be a valid and final answer to the Anarchists) that "dissolving" an organism is something different from dissolving a collection of atoms with no organic structure," I cannot do better than quote the following passage from an article by J. Wm. Lloyd in No. 107 of Liberty:

"It appears to me that this universe is but a vast aggregate of individuals; of individuals simple and primary, and of individuals complete, secondary, tertiary, etc., formed by the aggregation of primary individuals or of individuals of a lesser degree of complexity. Some of these individuals of a high degree of complexity are true individuals, concrete, so united that the lesser organisms included cannot exist, apart from the main organism; while others are imperfect, discrete, the included organisms existing fairly well, quite as well, or better, apart than united. In the former class are included many of the higher forms of vegetable and animal life, including man, and in the latter are included many lower forms of vegetable and animal life (quack-grass, tape-worms, etc.) , and most society organisms, governments, nations, churches, armies, etc."

Taking this indisputable view of the matter, it becomes clear that Mr. Read's statement about "dissolving an organism" is untrue while the word organism remains unqualified by some adjective equivalent to Mr. Lloyd's concrete. The question, then, is whether the State is a concrete organism. The Anarchists claim that it is not. If Mr. Read thinks that it is, the onus probandi is upon him. I judge that his error arises from a confusion of the State with society. That society is a concrete organism the Anarchists do not deny; on the contrary, they insist upon it. Consequently they have no intention or desire to abolish it. They know that its life is inseparable from the lives of individuals; that it is impossible to destroy one without destroying the other. But, though society cannot be destroyed, it can be greatly hampered and impeded in its operations, much to the disadvantage of the individuals composing it, and it meets its chief impediment in the State. The State, unlike society, is a discrete organism. If it should be destroyed tomorrow, individuals would still continue to exist. Production, exchange, and association would go on as before, but much more freely, and all those social functions upon which the individual is dependent would operate in his behalf more usefully than ever. The individual is not related to the State as the tiger's paw is related to the tiger. Kill the tiger, and the tiger's paw no longer performs its office; kill the State, and the individual still lives and satisfies his wants. As for society, the Anarchists would not kill it if they could, and could not if they would.

Mr. Read finds it astounding that I should "put the State on a level with churches and insurance companies." I find his astonishment amusing. Believers in compulsory religious systems were astounded when it was first proposed to put the church on a level with other associations. Now the only astonishment is - at least in the United States - that the church is allowed to stay at any other level: But the political superstition has replaced the religious superstition, and Mr. Read is under its sway.

I do not think "that five or six `States' could exist side by side with" quite "the same convenience as an equal number of churches." In the relations with which States have to do there is more chance for friction than in the simply religious sphere. But, on the other hand, the friction resulting from a multiplicity of States would be but a mole-hill compared with the mountain of oppression' and injustice which is gradually heaped up by a single compulsory State. It would not be necessary for a police officer of a voluntary "State" to know to what "State" a given individual belonged, or whether he belonged to any. Voluntary "States" could, and probably would, authorize their executives to proceed against invasion, no matter who the invader or invaded might be. Mr. Read will probably object that the "State" to which the invader belonged might regard his arrest as itself an invasion, and proceed against the "State" which arrested him. Anticipation of such conflicts would probably result exactly in those treaties between "States" which Mr. Read looks upon as so desirable, and even in the establishment of federal tribunals, as courts of last resort, by the cooperation of the various "States," on the same voluntary principle in accordance with which the "States" themselves were organized.

Voluntary taxation, far from impairing the "State's" credit, would strengthen it. In the first place, the simplification of its functions would greatly reduce, and perhaps entirely abolish, its need to borrow, and the power to borrow is generally inversely proportional to the steadiness of the need. It is usually the inveterate borrower who lacks credit. In the second place, the power of the State to repudiate, and still continue its business, is dependent upon its power of compulsory taxation. It knows that, when it can no longer borrow, it can at least tax its citizens up to the limit of revolution. In the third place, the State is trusted, not because it is over and above individuals, but because the lender presumes that it desires to maintain its credit and will therefore pay its debts. This desire for credit will be stronger in a "State" supported by voluntary taxation than in the State which enforces taxation.

All the objections brought forward by Mr. Read (except the organism argument) are mere difficulties of administrative detail, to be overcome by ingenuity, patience, discretion, and expedients. They are not logical difficulties, not difficulties of principle. They seem "enormous" to him; but so seemed the difficulties of freedom of thought two centuries ago. What does he think of the difficulties of the existing regime? Apparently he is as blind to them as is the Roman Catholic to the difficulties of a State religion. All these "enormous"' difficulties which arise in the fancy of the objectors to the voluntary principle will gradually vanish under the influence of the economic changes and well-distributed prosperity which will follow the adoption of that principle. This is what Proudhon calls "the dissolution of government in the economic organism." It is too vast a subject for consideration here, but, if Mr. Read wishes to understand the Anarchistic theory of the process, let him study that most wonderful of all the wonderful books of Proudhon, the "Idee Generale de la Revolution au Dix-Neuvieme Siecle."

It is true that "history shows a continuous weakening of the State in some directions, and a continuous strengthening in other directions." At least such is the tendency, broadly speaking, though this continuity is sometimes broken by periods of reaction. This tendency is simply the progress of evolution towards Anarchy. The State invades less and less, and protects more and more. It is exactly in the line of this process, and at the end of it, that the Anarchists demand the abandonment of the last citadel of invasion by the substitution of voluntary for compulsory taxation. When this step is taken, the "State" will achieve its maximum strength as a protector against aggression, and will maintain it as long as its services are needed in that capacity.

If Mr. Read, in saying that the power of the State cannot be restrained, simply meant that it cannot be legally restrained, his remark had no fitness as an answer to Anarchists and voluntary taxationists. They do not propose to legally restrain it. They propose to create a public sentiment that will make it impossible for the State to collect taxes by force or in any other way invade the individual. Regarding the State as an instrument of aggression, they do not expect to convince it that aggression is against its interests, but they do expect to convince individuals that it is against their interests to be invaded. If by this means they succeed in stripping the State of its invasive powers, they will be satisfied, and it is immaterial to them whether the means is described by the word "restraint" or by some other word. In fact, I have striven in this discussion to accommodate myself to Mr. Read's phraseology. For myself I do not think it proper to call voluntary associations States, but, enclosing the word in quotation marks, I have so used it because Mr. Read set the example.

Mr. Frederic A. C. Perrine, of Newark, N. J., asked Mr. Tucker for his reason for refusing to pay poll tax, and incidentally criticized the latter's position on that matter, which brought forth this reply:

Mr. Perrine's criticism is an entirely pertinent one, and of the sort that I like to answer, though in this instance circumstances have delayed the appearance of his letter. The gist of his position - in fact, the whole of his arguments based on the assumption that the State is precisely the thing which the Anarchists say it is not; namely, a voluntary association of contracting individuals. Were it really such, I should have no quarrel with it, and I should adroit the truth of Mr. Perrine's remarks. For certainly such voluntary association would be entitled to enforce whatever regulations the contracting parties might agree upon within the limits of whatever territory, or divisions of territory, had been brought into the association by these parties as individual occupiers thereof, and no non-contracting party would have a right to enter or remain in this domain except upon such terms as the association might impose. But if, somewhere between these divisions of territory, had lived, prior to the formation of the association, some individual on his homestead, who for any reason, wise or foolish, had declined to join in forming the association, the contracting parties would have had no right to evict him, compel him to join, make him pay for any incidental benefits that he might derive from proximity to their association, or restrict him in the exercise of any previously-enjoyed right to prevent him from reaping these benefits. Now, voluntary association necessarily involving the right of secession, any seceding member would naturally fall back into the position and upon the rights of the individual above described, who refused to join at all. So much, then, for the attitude of the individual toward any voluntary association surrounding him, his support thereof evidently depending upon his approval or disapproval of its objects, his view of its efficiency in attaining them, and his estimate of the advantages and disadvantages involved in joining, seceding, or abstaining. But no individual today finds himself under any such circumstances. The States in the midst of which he lives cover all the ground there is, affording him no escape, and are not voluntary associations, but gigantic usurpations. There is not one of them which did not result from the agreement of a larger or smaller number of individuals, inspired sometimes no doubt by kindly, but oftener by malevolent, designs, to declare all the territory and persons within certain boundaries a nation which every one of these persons must support, and to whose will, expressed through its sovereign legislators and administrators no matter how chosen, every one of them must submit. Such an institution is sheer tyranny, and has no rights which any individual is bound to respect; on the contrary, every individual who understands his rights and values his liberties will do his best to overthrow it. I think it must now be plain to Mr. Perrine why I do not feel bound either to pay taxes or to emigrate. Whether I will pay them or not is another question, - one of expediency. My object in refusing has been, as Mr. Perrine suggests, propagandism, and in the receipt of Mr. Perrine's letter I find evidence of the adaptation of this policy to that end. Propagandism is the only motive that I can urge for isolated individual resistance to taxation. But out of propagandism by this and many other methods I expect there ultimately will develop the organization of a determined body of men and women who 'will effectively, though passively, resist taxation, not simply for propagandism, but to directly cripple their oppressors. This is the extent of the only "violent substitution of end for beginning" which I can plead guilty of advocating, and, if the end can "better and more easily obtained" in any other way, I should like to have it pointed out. The "grand race experience" which Mr. Perrine thinks I neglect is a very imposing phrase, on hearing which one is moved to lie down in prostrate submission; but whoever first chances to take a closer look will see that it is but one of those spooks of which Tak Tak (James L. Walker, author of "The Philosophy of Egoism") tells us. Nearly all the evils with which mankind was ever afflicted were products of this "grand race experience," and I am not aware that any were ever abolished by showing it any unnecessary reverence. We will bow to it when we must; we will "compromise with existing circumstances" when we have to; but at all other times we will follow our reason and the plumb-line.


When I said that voluntary association necessarily involves the right of secession, I did not deny the right of any individuals to go through the form of constituting themselves an association in a which each member waives the right of secession. My assertion was simply meant to carry the idea that such a constitution, if any should be so idle as to adopt it, would be a mere form, which every decent man who was a party to it would hasten to violate and tread under foot as soon as he appreciated the enormity of his folly. Contract is a very serviceable and most important tool, but its usefulness has its limits; no man can employ it for the abdication of his manhood. To indefinitely waive one's right of secession is to make one's self a slave. Now, no man can make himself so much a slave as to forfeit the right to issue his own emancipation proclamation. Individuality and its right of assertion are indestructible except by death. Hence any signer of such a constitution as that supposed who should afterwards become an Anarchist would be fully justified in the use of any means that would protect him from attempts to coerce him in the name of that constitution. But even if this were not so; if men were really under obligation to keep impossible contracts; there would still be no inference to be drawn therefrom regarding the relations of the United States to its so-called citizens. To assert that the United States constitution is similar to that of the hypothesis is an extremely wild remark. Mr. Perrine can readily find this out by reading Lysander Spooner's "Letter to Grover Cleveland." That masterly document will tell him what the United States constitution is and just how binding it is on anybody. But if the United States constitution were a voluntary contract of the nature described above, it would still remain for Mr. Perrine to tell us why those who failed to repudiate it are bound, by such failure, to comply with it, or why the assent of those who entered into it is binding upon people who were then unborn, or what right the contracting parties, if there were any, had to claim jurisdiction and sovereign power over that vast section of the planet which has since been known as the United States of America and over all the persons contained therein, instead of over themselves simply and such lands as they personally occupied and used. These are points which he utterly ignores. His reasoning consists of independent propositions between which there are no logical links. Now, as to the "grand race experience" It is perfectly true that, if we have anything grand, it is this, but it is no less true that, if we have anything base, it is this. It is all we have, and, being all, includes all, both grand and base. I do not deny man's grandeur, neither do I deny his degradation; consequently I neither accept nor reject all that he has been and done. I try to use my reason for the purpose of discrimination, instead of blindly obeying any divinity, even that of man. We should not worship this race experience by imitation and repetition, but should strive to profit by its mistakes and avoid them in future. Far from believing in any Edenic state, I yield to no man in my strict adherence to the theory of evolution, but evolution is "leading us up to Anarchy" simply because it has already led us in nearly every other direction and made a failure of it. Evolution like nature, of which it is the instrument or process, is extremely wasteful and short-sighted. Let us not imitate its wastefulness or even tolerate it if we can help it; let us rather use our brains for the guidance of evolution in the path of economy. Evolution left to itself will sooner or later eliminate every other social form and leave us Anarchy. But evolution guided will try to discover the common element in its past failures, summarily reject everything having this element, and straightway accept Anarchy, which has it not. Because we are the products of evolution we are not therefore to be its puppets. On the contrary, as our intelligence grows, we are to be more and more its masters. It is just because we let it master us, just because we strive to act with it rather than across its path, just because we dilly-dally and shilly-shally and fritter away our time, for instance, over secret ballots, open ballots, and the like, instead of treating the whole matter of the suffrage from the standpoint of principle, that we do indeed "pave the way," much to our sorrow, "for those great revolutions" and "great epochs" when extremists suddenly get the upper hand. Great epochs, indeed! Great disasters rather, which it behooves us vigilantly to avoid. But how? By being extremists now. If there were more extremists in evolutionary periods, there would be no revolutionary periods. There is no lesson more important for mankind to learn than that. Until it is learned, Mr. Perrine will talk in vain about the divinity of man, for every day will make it more patent that his god is but a jumping-jack.

I have never said that it is "each man's duty to break all contracts as soon as he has become convinced that they were made foolishly." What I said was that, if a man should sign a contract to part with his liberty forever, he would violate it as soon as he saw the enormity of his folly. Because I believe that some promises are better broken than kept, it does not follow that I think it wise always to break a foolish promise. On the contrary, I deem the keeping of promises such an important matter that only in the extremest cases would I approve their violation. It is of such vital consequence that associates should be able to rely upon each other that it is better never to do anything to weaken this confidence except when it can be maintained only at the expense of some consideration of even greater importance. I mean by evolution just what Darwin means by it; namely, the process of selection by which, out of all the variations that occur from any cause whatever, only those are preserved which are best adapted to the environment. Inasmuch as the variations that perish vastly outnumber those that survive, this process is extremely wasteful, but human intelligence can greatly lessen the waste. I am perfectly willing to admit its optimism if by optimism is meant the doctrine that everything is for the best under the circumstances Optimism so defined is nothing more than the doctrine of necessity. As to the word "degradation," evidently Mr. Perrine is unaware of all its meanings. By its derivation it implies descent from something higher, but it is also used by the best English writers to express a low condition regardless of what preceded it. It was in the latter sense that I used it.


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